turtle, the librarian and the Barbie dolls
The life of a demented and bigoted hypochondriac
provides Jonathan Miller with an unlikely triumph. But hurry - only 55
of you can see it at a time
May 26, 2002
Obscura Almeida rehearsal rooms, London N1
Inman wrote 17 million words. He wrote about a life that wasn't a life.
This eloquent, bigoted, demented American diarist put himself under
hotel arrest for decades - he suffered from extreme hypochondria - and,
like a literal Yankee cousin to Proust, wrote about America and
everything that did and didn't happen behind the drawn curtains of his
Was his mighty tome his tomb? He yearned for
publication, perhaps as a projected end to loneliness. He sought young
women, too. He would advertise for them to read and talk to him - and
would fondle or sometimes have sex with them - and record this as
compulsively as he did everything else. He kept his diaries between 1918
and 1963, the year he shot himself.
On the face of it, this would not seem like a subject
for a play: static, verbose, disagreeable. But Camera Obscura is
piece, written by Lorenzo DeStefano and meticulously directed by
It is out of the ordinary in every way. For a start, it
is being performed in the Almeida's rehearsal rooms which seat only 55
people. This almost removes the sense of being at the theatre; there is,
instead, a feeling of disquieting involvement.
We are in the dark, watching occasional, forbidden light
(Inman abhored the sun) falling across a room that, at times, recalls an
Edward Hopper interior, complete with an atmosphere of tense
irresolution. The unexpectedly robust pleasure of the evening is in
trying to make sense of Inman's psychology.
revelled, too, in the language, which is as agile as Inman himself is
immobile. He hazards weird, decadent generalisations. He seldom has an
ordinary response to anything. He looks like a cross between a turtle
and Oscar Wilde, beached high on his hospital bed with whisky, pink
pills, girls who resemble Barbie dolls and an uncanny wife - Evelyn - as
Evelyn (Diana Hardcastle) is as hard to fathom as he is.
She looks like an elegant, sauntering librarian, dressed in black, as if
registering her husband's living death (after his suicide, she switches
to cream). She is a fashion plate, a bemusing combination of infidelity
and devotion. Inman has a harsh, comic instinct, telling her at one
point: 'You look like you're getting all your exercise writing cheques.'
Other visitors come and go, like flies alighting on a
decaying fruit. His interest, he more than once maintains, is in the
hidden and the unseen. This becomes our concern, too, as we consider him
in darkness and in a posthumous limelight.
Camera Obscura, The Almeida Rehearsal
In bed with Arthur Inman
Review by Paul Taylor
27 May 2002
tables have been turned on the excellent actor Peter Eyre. Earlier this
year, as Kenneth Tynan paying court to Louise Brooks in Smoking with
Lulu, he played the visitor of a legendary recluse. Now, in Lorenzo
DeStefano's fascinating play Camera Obscura, he plays the
legendary recluse who is being visited, skilfully switching from bedside
to in-bed manner.
The show is based on the real-life diaries of Arthur
Crew Inman (1895-1963), a moneyed American who made a kind of art form
of his phobias (to light, noise, John F Kennedy etc) and took the
of room service to quite extraordinary lengths. Unwilling to leave his
darkened apartment in the Garrison Hall hotel, in Boston, where he had
bought all the neighbouring flats in a doomed effort to eliminate
disturbance, he advertised in the press for "talkers" to tell
him the story of their life. Some of the females who responded were
fondled; others had full sex. The diaries therefore became an informal
and unpublished Kinsey report avant la lettre. His live-in wife
put up with his behaviour.
The photo of a testy-looking, toothbrush-moustached
Inman in the programme suggests a peppery, wired-up individual.
Eschewing impersonation, Peter Eyre converts the character into a great
tragicomic creation, his
demeanour reminding you more of the flabby Wilde, and his seductively
low-key Southern drawl, of a Tennessee Williams faded belle. The
dimpling, little-boy bids for pathos are as outrageously manipulative as
his innocent-seeming curiosity when he's pruriently quizzing his lady
visitors about the precise sensations felt during the female orgasm.
There's something at once floppily invertebrate and strong-willed about
this whisky-swigging, politically bigoted self-made invalid who takes
such a calculatedly childish delight in tape-recording every
embarrassing session. To be goosed by him would be like being molested
by a tenacious blancmange.
Yet the play and the performance help you to see why so
many people remained loyal to him – not least his wife, whose
oscillation between exasperated affection and the desperate desire for
some freedom and dignity is beautifully captured by Diana Hardcastle.
The hypochondriac's gently insistent air of total entitlement would very
quickly, you feel, enslave anyone without his paradoxical strength of
character. But that manner covers a terrible
The play is shaped in the life-in-the-day-of format, and
it happens to be the day, in 1963, on which he took his own life. The
consequences of his warped manner of existence crowd in on him. Through
a succession of encounters, which the expert shading of Jonathan
Miller's production prevents from ever feeling like a desultory straggle
visits, Inman makes some painful discoveries. He forces his wife into
revealing her 30-year affair with his doctor and friend, Cyrus Pike
(Jeff Harding). His sinister, Orton-esque Dutch manservant (Richard
Brake) turns out to have passed on one of the incriminating diaries to
his landlords, raising the threat of eviction from his
cocooned redoubt. And not just the living come to pay their disrespects.
Causing him to curl up in a foetal heap, his cotton-baron father pops
back from the dead to remind Inman of his vain attempts to become a
poet, derisively quoting the awful doggerel and its vicious reviews.
And yet this failed artist, this Proust
without the excuse of a great novel, left a vast literary legacy: 17
million words in 155 volumes of diaries. It can only be a compliment to
the play, production and cast that they have left me avid to get hold of
the published extracts.
To 8 June (020-7359 4404)
of a nobody
How did a housebound hypochondriac write a 17
million-word journal? And why has Lorenzo DeStefano turned it into a
May 8, 2002
bother, one could ask, with the rantings of a semi-invalid holed up in a
crumbling apartment hotel in a dying American city? What use are his
unsolicited opinions on world affairs, his ambitions for literary
immortality, his calcified Victorian ideas on race and natural
selection, his obsession with young girls? In the case of Arthur Crew
Inman, I found his ramblings very useful indeed - once I had overcome my
initial revulsion in order to look further into his self-made shadow
I first encountered the 17 million-word diary of this
transplanted resident of Boston in 1985, the year Harvard University
Press published a two-volume set entitled The Inman Diary: A Public and
Private Confession. Edited over a seven-year period by Daniel Aaron, a
professor of American literature at Harvard, Inman's diary easily
qualifies as the longest ever written by an American and perhaps by any
citizen of any land.
Covering the years 1903-63, Inman's social observations
range from his favourite subject, the American civil war, through the
onset of the nuclear age up to the assassination of John F Kennedy. It
becomes clear early on that this failed romantic poet meant these vast
outpourings to ensure him the kind of literary fame that eluded him
during his sleepless days and nights in apartment 604 at Garrison Hall,
the building he hardly left for 50 years. His desire for the spotlight
rears its head throughout the diary.
"I wish there was a way I could know right now
whether it's been worth the immense effort and nervous perseverance I've
spent trying to maintain the highest quality of this work, its honesty.
If the diaries of Pepys, Casanova, Boswell and Rousseau have proven of
interest to future generations, why not mine?"
would say that this is inordinately high company for a scribbling nobody
to keep, even in his own mind. And yet, taken as a whole, The Inman
Diary stands up quite well alongside those great chroniclers. While one
quickly tires of his endless hypochondriacal moanings - "right
thumb sprained, coccyx badly bruised, both arms a constant useless
agony. What a bruised, squirming semblance of a thing I am" - it is
the truly democratic nature of Inman's diary that most impresses me.
Instead of the self-centred epic of the mind that it
threatens to become, the work is radically transformed by the people
Arthur met after moving to Boston in November 1919. By placing personal
ads in the city's papers for over 40 years, he reached well beyond the
confines of apartment 604 to a surprisingly diverse and fascinating
range of fellow humans.
"Wanted: Talkers & Readers - Have you
imagination? Can you read or talk rapidly and interestingly? Have you
had unusual, dramatic or exciting experiences? $5.00 per hour to amuse
an invalid author (more if your speech is superlative)."
By including the hopes and dreams of the anonymous
shopgirls and clerks and travelling salesmen who responded to
his lure in great numbers, Inman broadened the scope of his work without
a thought for social rank or educational accomplishment. What interested
him most was a cracking good story well told, the effluvia of lives he
could barely imagine on his own.
"At last count I have chronicled the lives of more
than 1,000 people within these pages. They are not what you'd call great
people. For the most part they are of the common, everyday variety. Yet
they are far more interesting to me than persons of wealth or so-called
By pursuing his passion for recording the passage of
time, Inman meant to ensure not only himself but these fellow citizens a
measure of the immortality he felt they all deserved. Of course, the
diary's eventual publication 22 years after his death was nothing but a
distant hope throughout his long, unquiet life.
"I wish to explain, in the unlikely case that this
diary should ever be deemed to amount to more than the paper it is put
upon, the broad theory of its organisation... I delve back into my past
and set down all the odds and ends I can remember, so that in the
fullness of time I shall have painted the parts of a connected frieze,
parts of which you, dear readers of the future, will have to put
so I did. With Daniel Aaron's expert guidance, a design began to emerge.
Absorbing this diary - overwhelming in scope, yet delicate in nature -
was like plunging head first into a frigid pool. Daunted at first by its
sheer size (1,600pages even in its abridged form), I swam on, pulled
forward through each entry by the emerging voice. Almost every one
hinges upon Inman's opinions on everything from the price of soap to the
bloated reputation of one of his favourite enemies, Franklin Delano
Inman spared no one his poisoned pen, even his wife of
40 years, Evelyn Yates Inman. She emerges, for me, as one of the great
female figures in contemporary non-fiction. Her long-suffering role of
nursemaid, cajoler, co-conspirator and loyal friend to her ill-chosen
man brings to the diary a much-needed domestic reality without which it
would lose much of its appeal. Arthur's opinion of her, alternately
scornful and full of praise, chronicles one of the most strangely
functional marriages, real or imagined, ever set down on paper.
a pale personality Evelyn has, so many predictable little gestures of
speech and action. And homely as a stump fence in the
dark... Is it possible to live with any degree of closeness to someone
and not hate them on occasion?"
When Evelyn showed Arthur love, performed some useful
function for him or simply accepted him for the difficult but lovable
creature he had become, his views on her changed.
"Ambivalence aside, Evelyn is the sweetest child in
all the world. I am, in fact, of the humble opinion that my wife is a
treasure among treasures, the hub of the wheel of my existence. I guess
I love her more than I had any idea. Admitting it is not unlike having a
tooth pulled. Funny thing, love."
After beginning a correspondence with Aaron in the
mid-1980s, I slowly began to see the dramatic potential hidden in the
elephantine folds of the diary. After several years of spadework,
writing outline after outline to try to create some definable storyline,
in the mid-90s I had to actually tackle the job. By chance I came upon
the idea of setting the play during the last few days of Inman's life.
Hanging this vast memory piece on some kind of structure seemed
essential to keep the attention of an audience, for whom Arthur's
taciturn nature and outrageous opinions might be enough to drive them
from their seats. Likewise, any attempt to oversanitise the man would be
to ignore one of Arthur's most strenuous demands of any "editor of
"One day you will know my world more intimately
than you do your own, will have mapped its texture, its Chinese box
construction. Should you choose to emphasize my whiny, rotten qualities,
so be it. If I am made out as some kind of genius of solitude, I will
likewise go along. But if you attempt to nicen me up I will come back as
a ghost and seek revenge on you as one who has cheated me of my rightful
place in history."
wanting this curse upon my head, I have tried to present the man warts
and all. I have turned lengthy diary entries into what I hope are cogent
scenes, rendering monologues into credible dialogue between what were
once living, breathing people. Naturally, what is on display in Camera
Obscura is but a fragment of these people's lives. One would need scores
of Forsyte Sagas to even begin to encompass the girth of what Inman left
behind. In this incarnation of the play, however, brevity is a very good
· Camera Obscura is at the Almeida Rehearsal
Room, London N1, from Monday. Box office: 020-7359 4404.
For the Guardian Online article
"DIARY OF A NOBODY" by Lorenzo DeStefano, click
For the London Observer review "The turtle, the librarian and the
Barbie Dolls", click
For the London Independent reviews "In Bed with Arthur Inman",
For the British Medical Journal
review, click here
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